Why international adoption is still a viable instrument in child welfare

May 11, 2020

After decades of steady growth, the landscape of international adoption has shifted dramatically in recent years. Since 2004, the number of adoptions into the United States from other countries has dropped more than 80% as nations such as Russia, Guatemala, and Ethiopia have halted all intercountry adoptions. While these countries have ceased placing children through international adoption, others have taken strides at improving child welfare systems within their borders, also impacting adoption numbers. Compounding the issue, various U.S.-based Christian agencies have phased out their international adoption programs. 

The decline in adoptions and the changing circumstances raise an important question: Is intercountry adoption still a viable way to care for orphaned and vulnerable children outside of the U.S.?

At Lifeline Children’s Services we believe the answer to this question is a resounding “yes.” Serving as president and executive director of Lifeline for more than 17 years now, I believe our position is rooted in several important realities:

Intercountry adoption is not the appropriate solution for all orphaned and vulnerable children, but it is the best answer for some. For the Thaggards of Meridian, Mississippi, it was a no brainer. “There were girls in China that needed parents, and we were parents,” Andrea Thaggard shared. The Thaggards had four biological children of their own when they learned of the need in China for adoptive families. They brought home their first daughter, Mary Elizabeth, in 2006. The Thaggard family would later grow by five more children from China, rounding out their family of 12.

While there has been a steep decline in the total number of children adopted into the U.S. from abroad, there has also been a sharp increase in the percentage of children being brought home who have significant special needs or circumstances that prevent them from finding permanent homes in their country of origin. Intercountry adoption provides an opportunity for children with special needs, children who are part of large sibling groups, or older children to find the permanency of a family. Additionally, adoption provides a way for these children to have access to the medical, therapeutic, and educational resources they need.

Three of the Thaggard’s children were born with congenital heart defects, one child was born with brain damage, and one child was born extremely premature and malnourished. Their son, Adam, had severe Thoracic Outlet Syndrome and one of his lungs was paralyzed, Andrea explained. “When we got him home we found out he had even more medical issues that weren’t even in his file. . . . He’s had three open heart surgeries in the U.S. and he’s now thriving. He’s a warrior. We helped him grow stronger by medical intervention, but seeing him go through these things like he does, makes us stronger and see God’s handiwork.”

In-country solutions take time to develop. Lifeline is engaged in many nations around the world and helps mobilize local churches to adopt and foster children within their own communities. We believe the Body of Christ represents a significant, long-term hope for orphaned and vulnerable children. Over the last several years, we have witnessed exciting developments in Colombia, India, Romania, and Uganda as local churches focus on domestic adoption and foster care, raise up and train families to care for children coming from hard places, and develop partnerships with the government that allow the Church to be part of the solution. 

Yet, in many areas of the world, these movements are just beginning. It is incumbent upon us to “fan into flame the gift of God” that has been given to the global Church to care for orphans in Jesus’ name, but the counterbalancing reality is that we are years or decades away from these efforts providing family-based permanency for all children who stand in need of adoption. For this reason, intercountry adoption remains the best solution for many orphaned and vulnerable children who need gospel-centered families today.

We know the Bible calls us to care for the orphan. Much of the current criticism around intercountry adoption revolves around the socio-emotional cost of moving a child from one culture to another. As Christians, we must see this consideration for what it is: significant but not preeminent. In Scripture, the greatest concern for all image-bearers of God is the crucial need for belonging to a family — not necessarily preserving culture or ethnic identity. The central issue is one of discipleship. As the Apostle Paul so succinctly frames in Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” 

The first question we must wrestle with as Christians regarding child welfare, then, is theological not sociological: Are we placing children in families where they will be nurtured to know, love and follow Jesus? Clearly, Scripture points to the home and the family unit as the place of belonging, security, and discipleship. As a ministry, Lifeline continues to believe in intercountry adoption because we know that the permanence of family and the discipleship that family provides is God’s plan for children — and the best way to provide a family for some children is for them to be adopted into a family across national, cultural, and linguistic lines.

For the Mauldin Family, the call to “go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation” was manifested through the process of adoption. Their son and daughter, Cameron and Lizzie Claire, were both adopted from India. The Mauldin's know the people of India, including their children, were created in God’s image and created to know Him (1 Tim. 2). “We share the gospel (with our children) through everyday opportunities,” Taylor Mauldin explained. “Our kids are affirmed in their worth and they understand that Jesus loves them, God is for them, and their future is secure in his grip.”

Finally, we believe in intercountry adoption because we are committed to educating and walking through life with families. When a family adopts, they are stepping into a complex reality knowing that they are not enough to bring hope, healing, and a future — but God is. No matter if intercountry adoption is hard, uncertain, or even at times unpopular, we are confident in the education and tools that exist for families (and their communities of support) that help provide even the hardest to place child a sense of belonging in a physical family. Methodologies and cultural trends will come and go, but the need of children to be nurtured and discipled by a family will never fade. As long as those children are best and most appropriately helped through intercountry adoption, we will strive to make a way for Christian families to bring them home. Though there may be fewer families coming forward for intercountry adoption, there is still a larger role for the Body of Christ to play — supporting families and children that have come together through the gift of adoption.

Herbie Newell

Herbie Newell is the president of Lifeline Children’s Services, the largest Evangelical Christian adoption agency in the United States. The organization serves vulnerable children and families through private domestic and international adoption, family restoration, and pregnancy counseling. Herbie is also the author of Image Bearers: Shifting from Pro-Birth to Pro-Life. Read More